For a while we offered residential wellness retreats. At the time, we were thrilled to feel we had the capacity to literally SURROUND a client suffering from chronic illness and mood problems with such potent healing modalities that their state-needle would HAVE to shift toward well-being. We prepared the most nutritious diet for our clients, scheduled them for 3 kinds of massage throughout their stay, acupuncture, water aerobics, yoga therapy, tai chi, counseling, coaching, meditation, walks in the garden, enforced screen break: a one- or two-week soak in powerful non-stop goodness. It was of course expensive…but for those with the means AND the suffering, what could be better?
Sadly, our bubble of optimism was burst in the doing. What we found was this ~~ the retreat itself was indeed a sublime immersive experience, yet the return to life, with all its same activations and pressures and stresses, popped the needle right back to where we started. The intention for new habits fell away under the pressures of ‘normal’. The stress level snapped like a rubber band back to its patterned state.
The years of doing what we call Root Cause medicine have taught us that connectedness is the key ingredient in healing. Person-to-person, nervous system-to-nervous system, heart-to-heart connectedness with these qualities: respectful, appreciative, befriending. Our immersive wellness retreats could and did provide that wave of appreciative and respectful connectedness to all parts of the patient, which in the immediate short term allowed their nervous system to reduce the chronic vigilance underlying illness. Of course this effect had alot to do with filtering out most of the vigilance triggers abundant in ‘normal’ life.
But that chronic vigilance must be understood as the system’s drive to protect by keeping its dukes up, mobilized for flight or fight in reaction to the stream of danger signals confronting us all these days: pandemic and illness, financial and work pressures, widespread social divisiveness, challenges of raising children. There will never be a retreat that can eliminate those stressors. Our nervous system instead needs help updating the beliefs installed in its early days, when vulnerability was real and sometimes life-threatening. To gain more resilience to stressors, we must in fact take on the job of intentional operator of our nervous systems, in place of being dragged around behind its bundle of hair-trigger reactivity. We must learn how to provide signals of safety sufficient to ‘teach’ the nervous system that safety is real now, to ‘discomfirm’ the beliefs wired in much earlier when insecurity was real. And this is a one-synapse at a time project, requiring us each day to gain a bit of sensitivity to the ways our system uniquely activates into a triggered stress state, and the ways we learn to cultivate the return to calm. No small thing.
Do we retreat to wellness and wholeness, or is discovering well-being the Great Work of being here? The ongoing tending of the garden that is you, the garden no one BUT you can tend, the steady attention to what is needed, the befriending response. The taking on and learning how. By all means, plan the periodic unplug for a quiet week at the beach in good company…your own, your canine bestie, a good book, another human with whom you are companionable. It’s a much less daunting investment than a fancy retreat. And if it’s part of the Great Work of discovery of what tends you, you’ll get just as much lasting good out of it.